The COVID-19 virus has challenged developed nations in ways that few could have predicted just a few weeks ago. In Iraq, my colleagues and I watch with trepidation as Europe and the US struggle to contain the virus. Hospitals are overwhelmed, there’s an acute shortage of testing and protective equipment, and the death toll continues to rise at a shockingly rapid pace.
We ask ourselves, if it’s that bad “over there”, what might happen in a fragile country like Iraq where the health care system has been decimated by decades of conflict and under-investment? Adding to this, over 1.2 million people are still displaced, living in crowded formal and informal camps, where social distancing is difficult to implement.
As of 17 April, Iraq reported 1434 confirmed COVID-19 cases (80 deaths) in all governorates or state. On average there are about 20 to 30 new cases a day.
The government has put a nationwide curfew in place to help contain the virus. UNICEF and other humanitarian agencies are racing to step up emergency preparedness and response plans, including combating dangerous misinformation that was spreading like wildfire on social media.
Awareness-raising campaigns have been carried out using mobile radio team to disseminate messages on handwashing and social distancing. UNICEF has also installed several communal handwashing sinks in different locations to encourage handwashing practices following the distribution hygiene items, including soaps and buckets.
“In a public health emergency, information can save lives. A key priority for UNICEF is ensuring children, young people and their families have access to accurate information on how to protect themselves and their loved ones during the pandemic,” said Hamida Lasseko, UNICEF’s Representative in Iraq.
“So far, there are no COVID-19 cases in the camps where some of Iraq’s most vulnerable people live– we must do everything we can to keep it that way,” she added.
An emergency within an emergency
Some of UNICEF’s financial resources for the wider humanitarian operation have already been reallocated to focus on prevention and response activities in camps for refugees and displaced people.
In coordination with the Ministry of Health and Environment, UNICEF-supported teams have sterilized and fumigated Ninawa camps including Jedaa, Hamam Al-Alil, and Salamiyah; similar activities are also being rolled out for camps in other locations.
Health workers who provide critical care in the camps are also supported with personal protective equipment that is scarce to come by.
“With all the focus on equipping hospitals with protective equipment, health workers in IDP camps were in danger of being forgotten,” said Dr Moazzem, the Chief of Health and Nutrition in UNICEF Iraq.
“They were anxious for their safety at a time when every cough or cold could transmit the virus. We knew we had to quickly support them so they can continue to support others,” he added.
Dr Moazzem and his team started exploring how to obtain PPEs. They procured 4,000 kits through a local supplier, including gloves, surgical masks, coveralls, and other items for the health workers. Another, 30,000 PPE kits have been ordered and should arrive in Iraq as soon as global logistical restrictions ease.
Reversing all gains
Looking ahead, the fear is that the pandemic will exacerbate growing inequality in Iraqi society and reverse modest gains made for children since the end of widespread violence two years ago.
“Without a doubt, the economic impact of COVID-19 will plunge the most vulnerable families in Iraq deeper into poverty and children will pay the price. They will be forced to work, child marriage will go up, and violence at home will increase. That is what we must guard against,” said Lasseko.
There are also concerns that children’s health is being put at risk in other ways. Vaccinations campaigns have been halted or significantly slowed due to social distancing measures. In a country where only half of children between 12-23 months are vaccinated against preventable diseases, every delay in boosting immunization coverage heightens the risk of disease outbreaks such as measles and polio.
Livelihoods are also at risk — an inter-agency hotline that provides information on assistance to displaced families showed that nearly 60 percent of callers in the last two months were concerned about their lack of financial resources and diminishing employment opportunities.
Laila Ali is a Communication Specialist with UNICEF in Iraq